IMAGINING A SELF: Autobiography and Novel in Eighteenth-Century England by Patricia Meyer Spacks

IMAGINING A SELF: Autobiography and Novel in Eighteenth-Century England

Email this review


Every generation mentally rewrites the great works of the past, and, in the current view, the 18th century is all reflexive strategies of art commenting on art, thought scrutinizing thought. Spacks, author of the well-received The Female Imagination (1975), uses some dozen 18th-century autobiographies and novels to examine the artistic and personal act of looking at oneself in print. She finds significant links between fictional and autobiographical ways of dealing with the individual. Thus Richardson's Pamela presents herself with as compelling a box-office consciousness as the egregious Colley Cibber in his noisy Apology. Tristram Shandy's deliberate narrative distortions curiously parallel the problems of focus and self-definition raised by the six fragmentary versions of Gibbon's autobiography. The Fanny Burney of the diaries shows complex areas of kinship with the dilemmas and resources of Fanny Burney's fictional heroines. And, finally, both the young and the middle-aged Boswell disconcertingly echo problems of identity-formation and social accommodation in the only third-person narratives examined, Fielding's Tom Jones and Amelia. Perceptive and promising analogies--but Spacks' analysis leans heavily to the modish vocabulary of trick mirrors which nowadays keeps telling us that all works of art are really about themselves: Fielding may not seem to be within spitting distance of autobiography in Tom Jones, but we can easily gussy up the novel's exuberant narrative devices into ""a form of self-presentation that calls attention to the issue implicit in all autobiography."" Spacks' concentration on conscious or unconscious contrivances of self-presentation produces fine insights about Gibbon, Cibber, Boswell, Fanny Burney, a quartet of woman novelists and memoirists, and even Amelia. It turns complacently precious in the discussion of Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, and above all Tristram Shandy and Tom Jones. Spacks is a sympathetic and level-headed observer of lives as lives, a taker of the high road in literature as literature.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1976
Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press